The budget that just might save Kathleen Wynne: Robert Fisher

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One thing’s for sure about Thursday’s Ontario budget from the Liberal government. You shouldn’t expect Premier Kathleen Wynne to go away any time soon.

CBC’s Ontario political analyst Robert Fisher says the Premier has been underestimated all her political life and her latest budget might turn public opinion back in her favour.

Fisher spoke with the CBC’s Conrad Collaco about the provincial government’s new budget. Listen to the full interview by clicking the image at the top of the page, or read an edited and abridged transcript below.

Robert Fisher, Ontario politics analyst

Robert Fisher

Veteran political analyst Robert Fisher delivers his insights into Ontario politics every two weeks. (CBC)

We knew the Liberals were going to introduce spending measures after balancing the books including hydro rate cuts and measures to cool the housing market. Was there anything that surprised you in the budget?

The day before the budget the finance minister was telling reporters, without giving details, that the best was yet to come in the budget. They had already rolled out their plan on housing so they needed something to get people’s attention. And that’s pharmacare. While the health minister was fairly complimentary of Andrea Horwath and the NDP move on pharmacare there was no indication the government was ready to take on pharmacare. This is a big deal. Politically speaking it kneecaps the NDP and forces Patrick Brown and the Conservatives to address an issue that he might have ignored.

Now he must come up with his own plan. Pharmacare will become a major issue in the next election. It has boxed the two parties in. This is now part of the footprint of Ontario. The other parties are going to have to follow. Maybe they were going to do it anyway but the urgency came because the NDP plan was gaining traction with voters.

The opposition has been saying the Liberals are out of touch with the needs of everyday Ontarians. What does this budget say to voters about whether Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals are listening, particularly on pharmacare?

When you look at the spending on health care, the talk about improving hospitals and getting more people out of so-called ‘hallway healthcare,’ — Niagara Region gets a new hospital. There’s something coming in Mississauga — you have to say they are listening. Local MPP’s have been out and about taking the intel back to Queen’s Park saying that health care is a big issue.

Now the question will be how well will the opposition be able to convince the public that the Liberals are repairing the problems that they themselves have created over 14 years. Interesting point on that, if you look at the budget you would think the Liberal government only began with Kathleen Wynne’s election. Over time Ms. Wynne has collected some baggage and inherited baggage from former Premier Dalton McGuinty. What the Liberals have done with this budget is to try to airbrush out McGuinty. You can bet Horwath and Brown will want to airbrush McGuinty back into the equation for the next election. Kathleen Wynne served with McGuinty. They had been gently trying to run away from it. Now they have brought the hammer down. They’re saying ‘This is a brand new government, folks. This Dalton McGuinty guy, we’ve never heard of him.’

Before the budget was tabled, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown accused finance minister Sousa of “cooking the books” to balance the budget. How did the Liberals manage to both increase spending and balance the books?

You’ve got a buoyant economy. The economy in Ontario is humming along at record speed that no one had forecast and ultimately may end up leading the country. It gives you lower unemployment rates. It gives you more corporate income. You also have more federal health care dollars coming in. You have money from the cap-and-trade. You have money coming in from the sale of Hydro One. Suddenly, a government that went through nine years of restraint has this whack of cash and they’re going to spend it.

Mr. Sousa has said this budget is not a ploy to buy votes. He says it with a straight face. The reality is that’s exactly what this is. Also, cleverly, they leaked a lot of the budget. The Premier has said there is some wiggle room. We can tweak this budget. Then look for another budget just before the June 28 election. This budget, when you pick it up and read it, you can smell the diesel fuel from the campaign buses on it. The next one will have an even stronger election aroma.

Last week you talked about how Kathleen Wynne’s future as leader depends on how this budget is received by the public. Will it help her sway voters in the June 2018 election?

It’s a critical document. Budgets are always important to leaders and that’s particularly the case for Kathleen Wynne. It must move the yardsticks. They’ll be polling like mad over the next little while to find out how Ontarians are reacting to this. There have been complimentary things said about the budget and others have said there are parts of this budget that are a good first step. That is code for ‘I’m a hospital administrator. I could have used more money but I’m happy with the cash that’s going to flow.’

You also have an issue where the government is building new schools and repairing others. At the same time they are closing schools that are the hub of the community. A lot of people are upset. It could be a sleeper issue in the next election campaign. Kathleen Wynne is extraordinary campaigner who has been underestimated all of her political life.

People have said to me ‘Kathleen Wynne could be replaced.’ Actually, she could not be replaced. There is no one of the stature and capability in the caucus who could step up and replace her. They’re going to take her into the election and she’s determined to be there. I have heard from senior Conservatives who believe that anything is possible in the next election. The message from Conservatives to Patrick Brown is don’t order the new drapes for the Premier’s office just yet. Tim Hudak did that in 2014 and had to take that drapery back. Right now he’s with the Ontario Real Estate Association. He’s not sitting in the Premier’s office.

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The budget that just might save Kathleen Wynne: Robert Fisher

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